In most role-playing games, the player finds himself in the role of an adventurer who, sooner or later, must meet and defeat a fire-breathing dragon. But in a nice change of pace, Capcom's new RPG Breath of Fire III allows you to be adventurer and dragon all rolled into one.
You play Ryu (or whatever you want to call him - the game leaves it up to you), the last of a race of beings who once sought to rule the world. A dragon that appears in the form of a young boy most of the time, Ryu travels the globe in a quest to reunite with two friends. But as his journey unfolds, he uncovers the truth behind their disappearances, as well as a larger plot of unspeakable evil - one that only Ryu can stop.
RPG fans have heard this kind of story before, and in many respects, they've played this game before. Breath of Fire III has all the standard RPG trappings: the "you hit me, now I hit you" combat engine, control over a multiple-character party, and a number of smaller quests you have to accomplish along the way to finishing the overall one. This is not necessarily a criticism. Innovation is none too common in the world of RPGs, and even "cutting-edge" examples such as Final Fantasy VII stay pretty much within the narrow path beaten by their predecessors. But Breath of Fire III does bring a few fresh offerings to the table, such as its "examine" command, fishing minigame, masters' apprenticeship, and, most notably, its dragon gene system.
The examine command is an option you can choose for any or all of your characters during battle. It instructs them to watch their enemies as they perform specialized attacks - and if they're lucky, pick up the attack as their own, which often comes in handy in later battles. Whenever you decide to visit a fishing spot, a fishing minigame provides you with the chance to catch different status-enhancing fish (eating a rainbow trout restores magic points, blowfish cure poison, and so on). It's kind of fun and doesn't take up too much time, making it pretty much like any other minigame found in a RPG, but hey, it's fishing! Apprenticing to one of the world's masters entails different requirements for each master, such as providing a certain item, money, or nothing at all, and pays off in status bonuses that sometimes take away a few points from other areas as well. When it comes down to it, it's just another way to build up your characters, though the variety's nice.
The dragon gene system is one of the most notable features of the title. Instead of just turning into one dragon, Ryu can become every dragon by combining different dragon stones found throughout the game. The more powerful the form he takes on, the more magic points get sucked up each round of battle, and the more quickly he reverts back to boyhood. The key is to find the right balance of strength, breath attacks, and stamina. With 18 stones in all, you can spend a lot of time experimenting with different combinations and effects.
Graphically, Breath of Fire III straddles the line between 2D and 3D, with sprite-based graphics in an isometric 3D environment. The effect breathes some life, if not fire, into the traditional RPG look, sort of like Konami's Suikoden with a greater feeling of depth. It's an interesting attempt, but the style is a little too cartoonish for my liking. The soundtrack is above average, with a variety of tracks ranging from the expected epic style to what's best summed up as "RPG lounge."
Not everything is right in fantasyland though, since the game has a habit of forcing you through needless, time-wasting sequences. Random encounters happen far too frequently in Breath of Fire III, somewhere within the beat of every 30 seconds when in a hostile environment. While you can often flee, this severely inhibits your desire to explore your surroundings and gives the game a Beyond the Beyond-like quality. Also, having to build characters up inch by inch over hours of beating up weakling monsters so that your party is strong enough to survive a big fight can be extremely tedious and boring. While there are certainly plenty of things to do in the game and it's quite long in terms of the number of play hours, much of that time is less enjoyable than it should be. If the examine command were a little easier to pull off successfully and the frequency of random encounters turned down a notch or two, many of these problems would be solved.
Even with its handful of new features, Breath of Fire III breaks little new ground. Die-hard RPG fans may find it entertaining, but those looking for something new in this increasingly static genre will come away disappointed.